A starving Moscow dog is taken in by an eccentric professor who surgically implants human testicles and a pituitary gland; the dog metamorphoses into a loud, uncouth man, and all is thrown into chaos, bringing everyone into confrontation with the authorities. Finally, just as things can get no worse, the professor reverses the operation and everything reverts to its original state until the dog sees the professor take delivery of a fresh jar of preserved organs…
If you think that this, the plot of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel Heart of a Dog, sounds wacky, brace yourself for Alexander Raskatov’s operatic treatment, in A Dog’s Heart in collaboration with director Simon McBurney of the Complicit experimental theatre company. I talked to countertenor Andrew Watts, one of the leading artists of his voice-type in contemporary music, in a break from the intense rehearsal schedule, to learn more about this work which was a resounding hit when it received its premiere at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam earlier this year.
“It’s extraordinary, challenging, demanding,” says Watts. “It’s a difficult score I don’t think theres a role in it which is easy but its put together in such a way that it is absolutely about telling a story, unlike quite a lot of contemporary opera. When I go to see an opera, what I want is to be excited, to be thrilled but above all what I want is for someone to tell me a story, and these are all characters who are very much real.”
Watts has worked with Complicit before alongside a glittering operatic resumé, his multi-faceted career also includes the artistic directorship of London Contemporary Opera, as well as teaching posts at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and in Hamburg and Berlin and he is delighted to be renewing the acquaintance. “The process of working with a theatre company is that they bring another set of tools: not just the puppeteers or the stuntmen, but also a different energy, different resources that they bring into a room, which sometimes an opera house doesn’t have. It’s all about a cross-pollination of skills.”
However, this is Watts’s first project with Simon McBurney how has he found the experience? “Simon’s attention to detail is phenomenal he knows the score inside-out but whats just as impressive is his overall vision for the piece. And he’s great to work with: he has a really good energy, and the gift exactly the same as Peter Sellars of knowing every single name in the room, and hell joke and laugh and tease, and then, in an instant, say, ‘Right, let’s work’.”
McBurney’s renowned dedication to his work has already been well-documented in the process of bringing Raskatov’s score to the stage: when he first saw the unfinished score, McBurney worked with the composer to restructure the piece in order to speed up the action, and spent a long session with Raskatov and his wife, soprano Elena Vassilieva, who sang through every role in just under two hours.
The version of A Dogs Heart which will be presented at ENO is a cut version, Watts explains. “There are things which have gone, there are things which have been added, there are certain things that Simon needs which Sasha [Raskatov] didn’t initially include, things that Sasha wanted and to which Simon said no. It’s been a collaboration all the way, but I would imagine that what Sasha is seeing is as true to the score, and as true to his vision, as possible.”
McBurney’s burning drive for perfection didn’t stop with the score: when designer Michael Levine’s set was erected in Amsterdam, one week before the premiere, McBurney insisted that it was unsuitable and replaced it with staging built on scaffolding, allowing changes to be made quickly, but also showing the audience, in McBurney’s words, the nuts and bolts of the production, to make it feel more alive.
“Knowing the way Simon works, I’m very happy to be doing a revival of the piece, because it means someone else has had to do the hard work of getting it all right!”, Watts laughs. “But nevertheless, it all looks very beautiful you feel that you’re actually in that sort of room, but because of the nature of both the staging and the production, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next.”
While Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog is generally considered to be a biting attack on the Bolsheviks indeed, such was the displeasure of the Soviet authorities with the author that the novel was only officially published over 60 years after its completion, in Gorbachev’s age of glasnost Watts doesn’t feel that this is quite the view taken by Raskatov and McBurney.
“They certainly haven’t shied away from showing what it was like to live in Soviet times its set in 1920s and 1930s Moscow, and the threat of the Soviet authorities is very much real but theres a strong feeling that this is a story for any time, for any period or place. In showing the progress of the dog out of the gutter and then back to the gutter, what they’re trying to put across is that inside of all of us are these savage animals, just waiting to be released. But at the same time, it’s very true to the Bulgakov novel the score is terribly Russian! It’s steeped in tradition, where Russia has come from, both musically and in terms of the country and the people. All these wonderful melodies reminiscent of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, that’s all in there, as a basis to build on.
“And as well as all these traditions, it’s also harmonic, it’s enharmonic, it’s Schoenbergian, it’s Mahlerian, it’s Bergian, it’s a bit of everything. But the thing I do love is that it’s also very individual when you hear Sasha’s music you immediately know who wrote it. It’s motivic, but not rigidly so as soon as you think you’re settled in a musical idea, it changes.
“The score follows what Bulgakov does in the novel, layering his absurdist and surrealist images what Sasha has done is taken all these periods of music and thrown them all together. And then he reaches back even further: in some passages for the countertenor, Sasha writes essentially Baroque recitative! He also includes a quotation from his teacher Schnittke’s take on the Faust myth. So you’ve got the history of the Soviet Union, you’ve got the musical history of the Soviet Union, and you’ve got the history of vocal writing throughout the ages. It’s complex in its simplicity, yet simple in its complexity, it’s user-friendly, without ever belittling the listener. It challenges everybody, without assaulting the senses.”
Andrew Watts sings Vyasemskaya and Pleasant Voice of the Dog in Simon McBurney’s production of Alexander Raskatovs A Dogs Heart, at ENO for 7 performances only from 20 November. Garry Walker conducts, and the cast includes Peter Hoare, Stephen Page, Leigh Melrose, Nancy Allen Lundy, Elena Vassilieva and Alasdair Elliot. Further details at eno.org